What classic lit is most insightful about love?
July 2, 2007 12:56 PM   Subscribe

What are some really good, really realistic and personal love stories in classic literature?

I'm looking for some amazing love stories in classic literature that are personal and believable, and I guess it's okay if they are tragic, but they have to be more personal and less archetypal and symbolic (not "Romeo and Juliet"), and it would be nice if they successfully defend the possibility that love is transcendent and worthwhile even when miserable...so I guess they might necessarily also be a little cruel (please no _Bridges of Madison County_ or _Tristan und Isolde_)...but I'd also be down with being convinced once and for all that love is nothing, so long as the work is somehow uniquely enlightening about the human condition as manifested in humanity's strange desire to dissect itself into pairs. I'm open to a number of perspectives. Ideas?
posted by jruckman to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Pride and Prejudice?
posted by granted at 1:02 PM on July 2, 2007

Jane Eyre?
posted by logic vs love at 1:03 PM on July 2, 2007

People will probably yell at me for saying this, but I have to recommend The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I guess that's a stretch if you're looking for classic literature, but... I found the love story in this book to be the most honest, realistic, personal, and hopeful representation of love that I've ever found in a book (and I read a lot. It shows that love is difficult, and yet totally worth it. Yeah, there's the fantastical bit about time travel, but the relationship between these two characters as they deal with their lives together is utterly realistic, heartbreaking and genuine and beautiful.
posted by vytae at 1:08 PM on July 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Kit and Port Moresby in The Sheltering Sky.
posted by mattbucher at 1:13 PM on July 2, 2007

The Sorrows of Young Werther was one that really resonated with me when I was younger. It's pretty short, but it's definitely tragic -- unrequited love and so on. It's deeply personal, having been born from Goethe's own youth.
posted by kdar at 1:20 PM on July 2, 2007

Henry and June?
posted by Sailormom at 1:20 PM on July 2, 2007

-- "House of Mirth" and "Age of Innocence", both by Edith Wharton. Wharton's stories are extremely personal (all about internalized feelings) and tend to deal with people who can't acknowledge their love.

-- "Winter's Tale" by William Shakespeare. About what jealousy can do to love and what love can do to jealousy. Some would say the play's Deux Ex Machina makes it highly unrealistic, but in my view, anyone who sees a supernatural element in the end is not reading closely. (I would say "not watching closely," but some -- misguided, in my view -- productions push the supernatural interpretation.)

-- "The Seagull", "Uncle Vanya", "Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard", all by Anton Chekhov (see also: his short stories). Unless you read Russian, I strongly urge you to read the Michael Frayn translations or, for "Uncle Vanya", "Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard," the David Mamet adaptations (which are almost translations). I can't sum up Chekhov's views on love. They are so all-encompassing. Everything is in these plays.

Brian Friel also has a lovely "Uncle Vanya" translations, and there are two great films of it (both adaptations), "Vanya on 42nd Street," which uses the Mamet script and "Country Life," which sets the Vanya story in Australia, but is very true to the spirit of Chekhov's original.

I can't urge you enough to stay away from stilted, academic translations (e.g. Norton). They make these lovely plays horrible.
posted by grumblebee at 1:24 PM on July 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Pride and Prejudice is possibly the best love story of all time.

But, the movie is much better.
posted by four panels at 1:27 PM on July 2, 2007

Oh, and Blade Runner.
posted by four panels at 1:29 PM on July 2, 2007

Seconding grumblebee on the recommendation of Chekhov's short stories, especially "The Kiss."
posted by saladin at 1:36 PM on July 2, 2007

Our Mutual Friend -- Charles Dickens
posted by chickaboo at 1:54 PM on July 2, 2007

Le Gran Meaulnes by Alan Fournier.
posted by fire&wings at 2:29 PM on July 2, 2007

posted by fire&wings at 2:30 PM on July 2, 2007

Henry and June!!!! ...and Lolita?
posted by thebrokenmuse at 2:37 PM on July 2, 2007

Abelard and Heloise.
posted by paulsc at 2:46 PM on July 2, 2007

"The Bridge Across Forever: A Love Story" - Richard Bach
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 2:59 PM on July 2, 2007

remembrance of things past, perhaps? i'm thinking particularly of a few passages about swann and odette in swann's way.
posted by booknerd at 3:01 PM on July 2, 2007

Try Turgenev's 1860 novella "First Love," as translated by Isaiah Berlin in Penguin Classics. Don't forget Lolita, which is one of the best books ever published and among the most profound portraits of intimacy in any medium. Also, Jeanette Winterson's novel Written on the Body will take you inside the relationship of a rougish lover who falls in love for the first time after a lifetime of dalliance. Ah, Louise!

There's a transcendent love story in Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, to mirror Shakespeare, if you follow grumblebee's advice, and he and saladin are dead on about Chekhov, too.

Milan Kundera's got The Unbearable Lightness of Being and "The Hitchhiking Game," but they're bleaker than you maybe want, less transcendent, more real. The illusions are foregrounded.

Willa Cather has a wonderful short story called "Coming, Aphrodite!" with love and art opposed—art wins, but the love is real.
posted by cgc373 at 3:06 PM on July 2, 2007

Chekhov's "lady with a pet dog". He falls in love with her weaknesses, and vice versa. It doesn't work out, but so many great affairs don't either. Very sweet. Not totally romantic.

Lolita realistic? Hmm. I hope not.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:07 PM on July 2, 2007

Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake in Gravity's Rainbow. "They are in love. Fuck the war."
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 3:12 PM on July 2, 2007

O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi.
posted by rabbitsnake at 3:13 PM on July 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Lentrohamsanin, you just gave me goosebumps. So, seconding that depiction!
posted by cgc373 at 3:15 PM on July 2, 2007

I'm also going to put in a plug for Mark Twain's Autobiography, particularly the middle half, after the first quarter, and before the final quarter. That middle section is the story of an American man very much in love with his wife, who adored his children, and wanted only to be with them, as much as he could. The last quarter is the often bitter regret of a man from whom life has stripped those he most loved, and who knows that the best days of his life are long over, and that to remember them is torment in longing for them, and that forgetting would be a worse torment of failing to keep faith.

Puts a lump in an old man's throat, with every re-reading.
posted by paulsc at 3:30 PM on July 2, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is just fantastic, and I think it's exactly the kind of thing you're looking for. It's the story of four people, two of whom find signifigance in everything and two of whom find it in nothing, and their tangled relationships. The two main characters, Tomas and Tereza, have the most screwed-up and beautiful relationship I've ever read.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:02 PM on July 2, 2007

Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina. Thirding the Milan Kundera recommendations.
posted by ferdydurke at 4:17 PM on July 2, 2007

Ms. DarkForest here, recommending Charlotte Bronte's Villette.
posted by DarkForest at 5:20 PM on July 2, 2007

Rather than House of Mirth or Age of Innocence, I'd recommend Wharton's Glimpses of the Moon, in which love overcomes deceit and social ambition rather than being thwarted.
posted by nicwolff at 8:50 PM on July 2, 2007

More recently, Like Water for Chocolate--not exactly a happy ending, but it's made clear that Tita and Pedro are soulmates.
posted by brujita at 9:19 PM on July 2, 2007

Robert and Maria in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.
posted by bijou at 10:21 PM on July 2, 2007

Although Lolita, Unbearable Lightness, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Swann's Way, The Sheltering Sky are some of the best novels written, I wouldn't consider them primarily love stories. I think the following books use love more as the dominant theme.

Of Human Bondage- Maugham
The World According to Garp- Irving
Atonement- McEwan
A Farewell to Arms- Hemingway
Jane Eyre
Wuthering Heights
Pride and Prejudice
House of Mirth
Age of Innocence
War and Peace
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 12:08 AM on July 3, 2007

'Spring Snow' by Yukio Mishima - tragic love story in Taisho Japan.
'The Tale of Beren and Luthien', which is really about Tolkien and his wife.
posted by plep at 12:08 AM on July 3, 2007

Jane Eyre, as others have said, is amazingly direct and forceful and a fascinating examination of human relationships and falling in love. It definitely fits the bill of "it would be nice if they successfully defend the possibility that love is transcendent and worthwhile even when miserable" IMHO.

I also recommend Bronte's last novel, Villette (from which my user name comes, how about that!) in which the heroine falls in love with two men in a very realistic (and heartbreaking) manner.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 2:43 AM on July 3, 2007

Ada, or Ardor, by Nabokov.
posted by feloniousmonk at 8:34 AM on July 3, 2007

Possession by A. S. Byatt is possibly my favorite book about love, ever. It does a great job with contrasting how we see and feel love now with how it was a couple of hundred years ago. I think it's a classic, but I have no real sense of whether I'm right or not. I just love it.
posted by hought20 at 9:53 AM on July 3, 2007

A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway - about an American in the Italian army, falling in love with his nurse. A tragic story about the sort of crazy love that war-time produces.
posted by lubujackson at 11:32 AM on July 3, 2007

I think it's a classic, but I have no real sense of whether I'm right or not.

The words "classic" and "classical" get bandied about so much that they mean different things to different people. The traditional meaning (when referring to Western Literature) is a work of literature from ancient Rome or Greece. If we're being that strict, Shakespeare is not classic lit.

But I think when most people talk about classic lit, they mean works that were canonized (e.g. held in high regard by scholars) prior to the 20th Century -- or, at latest, mid 20th Century.

So for most people, Shakespeare and Jane Austin wrote classics. Many would also include F. Scott Fitzgerald, even though he wrote in the 20th Century.

I can accept it when people say, "Catch-22" or "Catcher in the Rye" are classics. They've been reprinted time and time again, and they've been read by most people who consider themselves literary. Maybe "modern classic" would describe those works better.

But once you throw A. S. Byatt into the mix, the word "classic" loses all meaning (as far as I'm concerned). "Possession" is a great book, but it's too recent. It certainly has not been canonized by scholars around the world.
posted by grumblebee at 2:10 PM on July 3, 2007

Would Dr. Zhivago count? I'm not a big fan of it, myself.

If you want realistic and personal, Kitty and Levin from Anna Karenina. Actually, Anna Karenina herself, too, though not such a happy ending. And not transcendent, come to think of it. Hmm.

four panels, I hated that Pride and Prejudice film, though I loved this one.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:37 PM on July 3, 2007

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